Here’s Science Cheerleader Reporter, Sarah. She interviewed the band “They Might Be Giants” about their new album “Here Comes Science!”
John Linnel and John Flansburgh (often nicknamed “the two Johns”) first started writing songs together while attending high school in Lincoln, Massachusetts. In the early 1980’s, they went on to form a band called They Might Be Giants, named after the 1971 film, and began performing in and around New York City. They even recorded their songs on an answering machine that fans could call to listen and leave them messages. Coming a long way from these “Dial-a-Song” days, they are now Grammy award winning artists who have sold over four million records worldwide.
Last night, David and I attended the opening concert of They Might Be Giants’ new national tour promoting their latest children’s album called Here Comes Science, an album all about basic scientific concepts. And though this album is certainly wonderful for teaching children, I would argue that it’s just as effective at reminding adults of all the things about science they might not keep in their day-to-day frame of mind. It was a phenomenal show! They Might Be Giants are fantastic musicians, and their songs are incredibly likeable. But beyond just the music, I also have to admit that there was something really powerful about been immersed in a totally diverse audience singing, “Science is Real!” in unison. (Check TMBG’s concert schedule to see when they are coming to your town.)
Before the concert, I got the amazing opportunity to interview They Might Be Giants over the phone to talk to them about their new album and upcoming tour. Here are some segments from our chat:
Sarah: Why the topic of science for this album? And, since you have previously been quoted as being “afraid” of science, how did you get over your fears when tackling the topic?
They Might Be Giants (TMBG): It’s not like every day there are songs about science. Also, there are many, many people who are involved in doing science. You run the risk of making them mad. For example, we just put out our video for a song on the album about a paleontologist, and Danny, our bass player, plays a character in the video digging up dinosaur bones. But within hours of posting the video, we received angry comments from actual paleontologists who said they were much more involved with being in a laboratory everyday than out in the field. Frankly, there are just a lot of details, so for us it was more of a fear of pontificating and being incorrect. In other songs, we used to have a lot of artistic license and weren’t held to being true…now all of a sudden, things have to be factual. And we brought in a consultant, Eric, to help with that.
Sarah: Did you struggle having to work with a consultant to write the songs?
TMBG: No, we struggled more just working off information we received. As some of it came from the unreliable internet, some of the information was flat out wrong, which we learned in a hurry. But you know what you are supposed to be doing, even if it was hard to get all of the information straight. Making up songs from scratch has its own challenges. Our consultant, Eric Field – who illustrates science ideas for kids – had a sense of how far we could go before we went too far. He wasn’t just involved as a fact checker, but also in trying to figure out things that can engage kids.
Sarah: What was his feeling on working with musicians?
TMBG: He was really amused by the whole project. Dan Spock, who is a big children’s museum exhibit creator, knows a lot of people in that field. He recommended Eric, and it just seemed like a natural fit.
Sarah: Do you find there is a different mentality that goes into writing for kids?
TMBG: If you are using the word mentality, there isn’t really. There are certain ideas or topics that are more appropriate for kids rather than adults. The success of our children’s projects has been due to applying the same mentality and spirit to the music. We give kids as much credit as adults for getting the spirit of what we are doing. We actually give as much time to putting together our kids’ albums. We don’t treat kids as a a lesser version of our product. Kids are a sensitive, tuned-in audience and tough on you, and you have to persuade them that you are good. They’ll tell their own grandparents that they are boring! Kids are natural thrill seekers. So we don’t know how important it is for kids to listen to kids’ music.
Sarah: I’ve heard from so many people that say, “I finally have music to listen to with my kids.” Is that the feedback you are getting? And do you think kids’ music has been dumbed down?
Yeah. Once we thought about it at all, a lot of the stuff we didn’t like about contemporary kids’ music was just that. It has be to listenable to by adults. There’s something agreeable and fun about stuff that is dumb – maybe it is partly because it is dumb – though I guess I wouldn’t say “smart” music is necessarily the answer. There is just some music that is irritating. A lot of stuff is simply manufactured for kids. There a lot of corporate [stuff] out there.
Sarah: What do you hope children will get from this album? Adults?
We go through the song process in a problem solving way, but we don’t think so hard about how they are going to land with the audience. But, there is a song that is called “Meet the Elements” that, if it existed in high school, we would have done better in chemistry! It does exist as a pneumonic. People remember things set to music.
Sarah: Was School House Rock an influence in writing Here Comes Science? Their songs accomplish a lot of the same goals.
TMBG: We actually never saw School House Rock, even though it’s the most common thing that comes up when talking about this stuff – we just completely missed out on that. We are impossibly old, and believe it or not, Sesame Street started when we were in elementary school, so we didn’t necessarily experience those in a primary way either. [School House Rock] is cited as a precedent for what we’re doing, but we were uninformed by it.
Sarah: Making a CD that is eduational comes with a certain amount of responsibility. Did you feel that?
TMBG: When we were doing the ABCs and the 123s, there wasn’t any danger that we would screw up in any way. There are always going to be cranks that are going to criticize what we are doing, extremely picky people, but we did feel a responsibility to get this right. But there are still probably errors, and we’re still sparking controversy. But there is controversy among the experts! It’s very hard to tip-toe around that stuff. It does enhance our bad-boy image though! [Laughter]
Sarah: How has the new scientific understanding changed you?
TMBG: Not being experts, there are certain advantages that we have going into this. We can identify with people who do not naturally take to that subject and say, “Yeah, some of that is really counter-intuitive.” Facts that are most important [in science] are sometimes the least obvious or make the least amount of sense, and we feel uniquely qualified [because we understand that]. We haven’t changed our perspective since making this album, but we are more informed. Though we still get why the material is hard and why kids would be turned off by it. We wouldn’t just assume that we can make this material loveable…there is always a challenge in presenting the material. It’s not something that happens naturally. In that sense, we’re still working from the same position.
Sarah: What is next for you after this tour in children’s music?
TMBG: We’re going to write an album about cynicism. [Lots of laughter] This science thing has busted the whole formula. We were told by Disney that the follow-up to the ABCs was going to have to be the 123s. In some ways it was so obvious that we needed to be reminded of that. For the science thing, we were discussing instead of “Here Comes…” it could be “There Goes Your Civil Rights.” [More laughter]
I could list so many wonderful things about Here Comes Science, but I think it would be better for all of you to check it out for yourselves! (My favorite song at the moment is Electric Car, and that video is posted below.) A big thank you to They Might Be Giants’ publicist, Debbie, for setting up the interview and arranging our concert tickets. (For this science dork, it was incredibly cool for my reputation to be on a rock band’s “list.”)